Excavating the CA archive: the Welsh Marches

12 mins read

Joe Flatman explores half a century of reports from the past.

A selection of articles mentioned by Joe Flatman in this month’s column belowcan be accessed for free for one month via Exact Editions, from 2 July. Use the links within the text to jump to the individual articles, or click on the covers below. Print subscribers can add digital access to their account for just £12 a year – this includes everything from the last 50 years, right back to Issue 1! Call our dedicated subscriptions team on 020 8819 5580, quoting DIGI365, to add digital access to your account, or click here for more information.

When I began my recent geographical explorations of regions in Britain, I asked if any readers had recommendations on where to visit. I am pleased to report that this column comes at the suggestion of Peter Francis, who proposed that I tour the Welsh Marches. This is an area that I have loved since childhood holidays there, and one I return to whenever I can, so I was delighted to pursue Peter’s suggestion.

The main counties in question are those of Herefordshire and Shropshire, but in this column I journey widely along the Anglo-Welsh border, picking out sites featured in CA over the years. Intriguingly, there are some surprising gaps in the magazine’s coverage. Most notably, the whole of what is today the Shropshire Hills AONB, encompassing prehistoric and medieval sites aplenty and including major centres like Ludlow, has scarcely been visited in CA’s more than 50 years. Any readers in the area who are running interesting work to report on, please let me know: I will willingly make a site visit once such trips are possible again.


CA’s first coverage of the Marches came in issue 5 (November 1967), just over the modern-day border at Hen Domen, near Montgomery. In its day, this site was well-known for the long-running and innovative fieldwork led there by Philip Barker. This was where he developed many of the techniques of ‘open area’ excavation later put to such good use at Wroxeter (see my column in CA 338), and many of which would become standard practice in archaeology more widely.

CA 174 explored the life and legacy of Philip Barker. The cover shows one of his ‘characteristic works on an archaeological theme, made from a Polyfi lla base and acrylic paints’.

Hen Domen is a motte-and-bailey castle site constructed before 1086 by Roger de Montgomery. The castle served as a key frontier post until 1223, when it was replaced by nearby Montgomery Castle. By 1300, it was abandoned and, as luck would have it, it was never subsequently built on. So when he first arrived in 1960, Barker had a virtually untouched medieval military time-capsule to explore, including extensive timber and masonry structures revealing a diverse array of construction techniques. CA returned for an update on work at the site in issue 111 (September 1988), and readers interested in Barker’s career ought also to explore issue 174 (June 2001), which examined his wider life and legacy.

Unsurprisingly, given the history of conflict along the Anglo-Welsh border, castles and defended sites of all types have frequently appeared in CA. In the spirit of Barker’s work at Hen Domen, there are three other medieval castle sites associated with conflict along this contested border that are worthy of your attention, should you find yourself in the area in the future: Dolforwyn in Powys, near Welshpool, which featured in issues 120 and 197 (June 1990 and June 2005); Pulverbatch in Shropshire, near Shrewsbury, in issue 336 (March 2018); and most recently Clifford in Herefordshire, near Hay-on-Wye, in issue 341 (August 2018).

Those desirous of earlier defended sites, meanwhile, need not be downhearted: issues 19 and 33 (March 1970 and July 1972) braved the Breiddin, a dramatic Iron Age hillfort built on a volcanic ridge rising to more than 350m on the southern bank of the River Severn to the west of Shrewsbury. Later, issue 226 (January 2009) explored Credenhill near Hereford, where excavations cut a deep section through the ramparts of the Iron Age hillfort there, thanks to some imaginative working between the landowner, the Woodlands Trust; the local county archaeologist, Keith Ray; and the National Lottery Heritage Fund, during the removal of a commercial coniferous crop that had been planted on the site in the 1960s.


Issues 60, 316, and 358 (February 1978, July 2016, and January 2020) paid visits to perhaps the most famous ‘defences’ of all in this region: Offa’s Dyke and the lesser-known Wat’s Dyke. CA 60 ranged widely along both earthworks, which had first been properly surveyed by Sir Cyril Fox in 1934 (that work was only published in 1955), but which had been known by historians and antiquarians alike for generations – the first mentions of them come in Asser’s 9th-century Life of King Alfred.

In 1978, CA covered the work of the Offa’s Dyke Project Group of the University of Manchester, which at this time was conducting surveys of the geographical extent of both dykes, as well as targeted excavations at key locations along them. After this, CA did not revisit for nearly 30 years until 2016, when a new book by Keith Ray and Ian Bapty led Chris Catling to explore these structures. As Chris outlined (in CA 316), our archaeological understanding of the extent of the dykes remains sketchy, and our understanding of their construction chronology even more so, especially as regards radiocarbon or thermoluminescence dates. In their book Offa’s Dyke: landscape and hegemony in 8th-century Britain, Ray and Bapty call for a comprehensive reassessment by modern means, a call that remains as urgent now as ever. This is a volume well-worth seeking out for those interested in the area.

Questions remain over the construction chronology of Offa’s Dyke, as research in a 2016 book by Keith Ray and Ian Bapty (highlighted in CA 316) demonstrated

Most recently, across 2018 and 2019, the Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust (CPAT) examined several sections of both dykes on behalf of Cadw, part of a wider project examining their designation. CA 358 (January 2020) reported that this work came following the vandalism of a section of Offa’s Dyke near Chirk in 2013. This had led Cadw to realise how at risk both the scheduled and unscheduled sections were from deliberate and accidental damage, and also from gradual erosion and degradation over time.


The archaeology of the cathedral city of Hereford has featured in CA a number of times over the years, including a recent survey of its many historic houses in issue 349.

The other defining feature of the Welsh Marches is the range of fine small towns that dot this landscape, many withstunning surviving architecture and archaeology. These have been a rich hunting ground for researchers over the past 50 years, and CA has regularly explored such fieldwork. An excellent starting point is issue 53 (November 1975), which provides a survey of the historic towns of Wales, neatly placing the border towns in a useful broader context. And from the other side of the border, issue 145 (November 1995) provides a thoughtful contrast 20 years later based on a then just-completed survey into field-names of Herefordshire. (On a sidenote, see also issue 64, December 1978, for a survey of that greatest of Herefordshire industries: cider-making.) As regards specific towns, Hereford has been the mostvisited in the area by CA down the years. The magazine first reported on its archaeology in issue 9 (July 1968), and returned in issues 33 (July 1972), 142 (April 1995), and most recently 349 (April 2019). The latter article surveyed the historic houses that survive in quantity in the town, and is an exceptional read.

Other border towns visited by the magazine include Leominster (in issue 195) and Monmouth (in issues 115, June 1989, and 138, May 1994). A final note must be made, however, of lesser-known Tilley, a medieval settlement to the north of Shrewsbury. Issue 334 (January 2018) featured the Tilley Timber Project, which has managed to establish dendrochronological dates for nearly all of the village’s timber-framed buildings. A real teameffort, including the involvement of many residents willing to let researchers crawl through their attics (and trusting that no one would fall though any ceilings), this is precisely the type of community-focused ‘fieldwork’ that CA most enjoys reporting on, and is a fitting place to conclude this month’s regional survey.

About the author
Joe Flatman completed a PhD in medieval archaeology at the University of Southampton in 2003, and since then has held positions in universities, and local and most recently – central government. Since March 2019, he has been a Consultancy Manager in the National Trust’s London and South-East Region, leading a team working on Trust sites across Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. You can follow him on Twitter @joeflatman.

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